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Racing With Ayrton Senna: 1989 San Marino Grand Prix

Frozen in Time: 1989 San Marino Grand Prix


San Marino Grand Prix


Imola, Italy


April 1989

“Afterwards, he argued that it wasn’t the start – it was the restart, so the agreement didn’t apply. As I said, he had his own rules, and sometimes they were very…well let’s say strange. It had been Ayrton’s idea, in the first place, and I didn’t have a problem with it. Afterwards, though, I said it was finished; I’d continue to work with him, in technical matters, but as far as our personal relationship was concerned, that was it. And the atmosphere in the team became very bad, of course.”

Alain Prost to Nigel Roebuck in Motorsport, 1998

Ayrton Senna started off at pole. Screengrab from the 1989 San Marino Grand Prix (editorial use only)

Ayrton Senna started off at pole. Screengrab from the 1989 San Marino Grand Prix (editorial use only)

Race Brief

It was a warm, sunny day at Imola. The Ferrari fans were out in droves, packed into the stands, with very little elbowroom. Ayrton Senna, defending world champion was at pole – a familiar sight now, with his McLaren teammate Prost at 2nd place. The lights went off and Senna shot off towards the first turn, pulling away from the rest of the pack, increasing the gap. He looked unbeatable. Prost, behind him stayed on pace. Ivan Capelli crashed out in the first lap. Things came to a head on the fourth lap. Gerhard Berger in the red Prancing Horse approached the Tamburello corner, and inexplicably rammed straight into the wall at 180 mph. It was mechanical failure. The wheel rolled on to the track, even as the car bounced off, came to a rest and horrifyingly, caught fire.

Help came barely a few seconds later, as three marshals ran on to the scene to put out the fire. Berger was taken away, and was lucky to sustain broken ribs and second degree burns.

The race started once again. This time though, it was Prost who shot off into the distance, as Senna followed suit, passing his teammate near Tosa. Behind them, Stefano Modena in the Brabham rammed into the wall and was thankfully unhurt. Meanwhile, Nigel Mansell, Riccardo Patrese and Alessandro Nannini fought for 3rd place. But the battled last just three laps with Patrese and Mansell retiring due to technical issues. Senna took victory with Prost 40.225s behind at second and Nannini in third.

The Ayrton Moment

Imola, 1989. This was it. This was that moment, the time, the place, the race, when it all went for a toss, when rivals became bitter enemies…for a time. Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost had a pre-race agreement. Whoever led into the first turn should stay there. Senna led when the race started, but at restart, it was Prost who shot off, leading the pack. But Senna passed the Frenchman towards Tosa. Prost believed that this was a violation of the agreement. There was the customary champagne on the podium, but Prost was in no mood to celebrate. It was the beginning of a rivalry that would rock the F1 world, and its fans alike. It was the beginning of a rivalry that would be remembered, always.

NEXT: 1989 Japanese Grand Prix

PREVIOUSLY: 1988 Japanese Grand Prix

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Categorised in: Ayrton Senna, F1, Faces

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